Photo depicting staff members protesting outside Seattle Children's Hospital in Sandpoint with signs that read "RESIGN" and "Our Black patients, families, and colleagues deserve to feel safe at Seattle Children's. Our white male leaders have failed."

OPINION: Dear Seattle Children’s Hospital, Please Do Not Call Yourself a Leader in Equity

by Dr. Ben Danielson

In this time of a continued reckoning, communities are watching and listening closely. What you say and what you do are noticed. Subtle and overt assertions matter. Actions and acts of omission matter. Of all the outrageous numbness that you seem to possess during this time, it is perhaps most hurtful to hear you speak about yourself as an industry leader in equity in settings like the Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic community town hall.

We hear your bafflement, your confusion, when you say it is hard to come to terms with the founded allegations of racism and other biases because you are considered a leader. Maybe you truly believe your words; maybe it is more of a public-relations-based defense. 

Sometimes the strategy works. There are those who deeply want to believe you are the “goodest” of the good. There are those who want to avoid the pain of confronting the truth of your actions. It would be so much more comfortable to construct a universe wherein it is somehow more valid to choose words over deeds, where it is possible to choose against knowing the harm you have done and choose, instead, to embrace the comforting words “industry leader in equity.” 

When you fall in love with your own words, even when you mean them, you lose track of the gritty labor required to do the right thing. To be self-seduced by lofty terms like “leading children’s hospital in equity” is a strange organizational disease indeed. It must cause keen observers to wonder how else your delusion about your grandness has created a foggy haven for mistreatment.

You clearly don’t know what anti-racism means, so please stop using that term as well. Accepted understandings of anti-racism call it conscious and deliberate actions to dismantle racism. Powerless equity centers, unaddressed accounts of racist acts, and ignored data showing racism: those are conscious and deliberate inactions. So please, until you understand what anti-racism means, please do not use the term to describe how you behave.

A fundamental part of the equity journey, the anti-racism path, is to disavow mere flowery words on paper. This is not a radical or new idea. Langston Hughes wrote about it decades ago in a poem called “Sweet Words on Race”:

Sweet words that take
Their own sweet time to flower
And then so quickly wilt
Within the inner ear,
Belie the budding promise
Of their pristine hour

You may love your words, but please do not expect us to love them. Please do not hold them up as a shield against worthy scrutiny. Please do not wear them as blinders against transparency. Please do not ask us to join in your delusion.

It is not the community’s duty to teach you this, but communities most impacted by racism hold little stock in a hospital touting itself as a national leader in equity. It is a meaningless appellation, made so by our lived experience and history. Or perhaps it carries too much meaning since the wrong voices, those within a racist healthcare system, are determining the ranking. 

It is not the community’s duty to teach you, but you must know when you say you are an industry leading hospital in equity — after an exhaustive assessment and its damning findings — it is the very height of hubris. You must realize by now that hubris is how you got to this state, is one of the root causes of your perpetuation of racism. 

You may think having a Center for Diversity and Health Equity has made you a leader in equity. You may somehow argue the internal measurements you have performed make you an industry leader. Communities are smart. Communities know: standing up centers for equity and hiring Black and Brown people with equity in their titles but not imbuing those centers and those titles with any meaningful power is a mighty barrier to equity. It is a tactical method to prevent equity from occurring. It is part of a set of anti-equity and pro-racist strategies. Communities know: when you measure unfairness — perhaps a lack of language equity or profligate, racism-based security calls — then do nothing about your findings, you are functioning with a heinous awareness of the harm you are doing. This is perhaps crueler, more insidious, certainly more intentional, than if you were not aware of the harm you were doing.

If you think taking a few steps toward equity makes you better than other hospitals, then you are sorely mistaken. To take partial steps and willfully remain unaccountable for what you find is something far from leading. If you repeat this cycle by undergoing an assessment and then seeking to hide its findings, you show community you have learned nothing in the past year. 

Please don’t continue to tout your excellence in equity. It causes us pain. If it were merely your own delusion, that would be bad enough, but it causes us pain. If it merely gave your board and donors a path to resume business as usual, it would be bad enough, but it also causes pain to community. It is a form of erasure, seeking to negate our pain with the counterargument of your flowery self-deceit. Communities like ours have faced enough ignoring, enough erasure, enough denigration. Our cause is just — you have a reckoning to account for. Do not add further trauma by trying so hard to negate us.

Community loves Seattle Children’s Hospital. I would argue community loves it more than those who stand in unmitigated defense of it today. Community sees the possibility, the gifts, the people, and the hope. Community expects the hospital to be the place it should be. Community sees the potential which, but for its current leadership, it could truly become, beyond simply the words of excellence in equity. 

So please do not call yourself a leader in equity. It will only be true when community calls you a leader in equity.

Dr. Ben Danielson is a clinical professor at the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Washington School of Medicine and the former medical director at the Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic. 

📸 Featured Image: Silent protest by members of Seattle Children’s Hospital (SCH) workforce on Aug. 11, 2021, outside of SCH’s main campus in Sandpoint. (Photo: Alex Garland)

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